What is Improvisation and Why Do We Do It?

Improvisation is essentially a spontaneous movement exploration. Improvisation can be a choreographic tool, a meditation, a warm-up, or just plain fun! You can improvise in a group or by yourself, with guidance or completely open, in front of an audience or in class or on your own.

Within the context of the timeline of Classical Dance, Classical Ballet came first. Modern dance was created in reaction to the stylized, codified movements of Classical Ballet, Post Modern dance was created in reaction to the stylized, codified movements of Classical Modern Dance. Post Modern dancers used pedestrian (everyday, non-technical) movements in their work—opening up the performance of dance to non-dancers—and dances were often different every time they were performed. The practice of improvised dance performance developed in the 1960’s and 70’s. Next came the creation of a form called Contact Improvisation which takes the concept of spontaneous movement and combines it with the idea of weight sharing with another (or several) dancers.  

In addition to Improvisation being used as a performance technique it can also be used as a choreographic tool. When I create dances I often use improvisation to create movement. It is a great tool to find ways to move outside of my habitual movement patterns. I often have dancers perform this exercise: create one movement and repeat it over and over. Allow that movement to flow into another movement and repeat that sequence. Repeat until you have a phrase of 8 movements strung together. What started as improvisation has turned into a set phrase.  

Improvisation is also a great full body warm up. A common way I use it to warm up  involves starting on the floor, sitting or lying down, and moving gently against the floor, exploring the space in all directions. Then the dancer gradually moves away from the floor, higher and higher over the course of several minutes until they are moving fully upright, then coming to a centered standing position. This engages all of the stabilizing muscles, core and arms and legs.

My favorite use of improvisation is as a meditation.  This can be done with music or without.  In a small or big space.  With eyes open or closed.  The idea is to allow the judgmental part of the mind to be quiet and to access an inner openness. To allow one movement (or stillness) to follow another and accept it. I find that after these movement meditations I feel relaxed, energized and open to the possibilities of the day. Check out this “Movement Journal” entry of mine.

At Arts in Motion we offer a class devoted to improvisation. During an improvisation class, different improvisation techniques are taught—mirroring, following, group awareness, to name a few. Then dances can be created using these techniques that can then be performed for an audience. In October the Modern Improvisation class performed “Verbs!” in which they used the words melt, jump, turn, reach, fall and roll as the impetus for their improvisation. See if you can spot them all!

Another benefit of an improvisation class is connection: connection to self, and connection to others. Through the process of letting go of expectations, dancers (and people in general) can tap into an inner calm and confidence that can allow for a level of self-expression and discovery that couldn’t happen in a technique class. An improvisation class can be an avenue to let the world outside fade away for a while and encourage our inner selves to heal and evolve.

Improvisation techniques also feature prominently in all of the styles of dance we teach at Arts in Motion. Our goal is to encourage self-expression and Improvisation is a useful tool for that purpose. In particular our Hip Hop classes are taught almost entirely with this improvisational approach. Hip Hop is essentially an improvised dance style, not a choreographed one, so our classes teach the movements of the style and then facilitate the students improvisation within that style.

Our Ballroom dance classes are also taught with a focus on Improvisation. Some studios teach Ballroom dance as a sequence of steps, but to us it is an improvisational dance form. Once a dancer understands the basic structure of any one style, Waltz, Foxtrot, etc., they can improvise in any way they want, communicating with their partner through the framework (arm hold). When the “leader” realizes that they are not going to be “wrong” if they divert from one or another prescribed step, it is incredibly freeing and makes the dance experience so much more fun!

Improvisation figures strongly in our Tap classes as well. Tap began as a largely improvised dance style and just as musicians need to be able to improvise, so do Tap dancers.  

What are you supposed to get out of improvisation as an audience member?

Sometimes, as an audience member, you might not even be aware that what you are watching is improvised. The best improvisations seem choreographed. This comes from a confidence in the performers and a 100% commitment to whatever happens. Sports superstars do this all the time. Just like a basketball player can weave his way through a mob of defenders and make it to the basket with a jump, a turn and a dunk, landing on his feet like a cat, so can a dancer perform a series of unplanned movements across a crowded stage of other dancers with ease and grace.

Most choreographers I know do not expect their audiences to “get” one idea, theme or message from their work. Dance, like other art forms, is meant to provoke thought, invite introspection and facilitate dialogue. Therefore you should get out of an improvised performance the same thing you get out of any dance performance – a kinesthetic experience during which you are allowed to make your own connections to the movement in whatever emotional or purely spatial, ways the piece speaks to you.  

I like to say that life is an improvisation—so whether you are currently in a dance class or not, feel free to move spontaneously through your day noticing the myriad ways we navigate the unexpected and surprising.  

If you’d like to take a more active role in adding elements of improvisation to your life, give us a call and we’ll get you set up for a trial in any one of our classes.